Nebraska Football: Blackshirts show Matt Rhule era toughness has arrived

Oct 6, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers players celebrated a recovered fumble by the Illinois Fighting Illini during the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports
Oct 6, 2023; Champaign, Illinois, USA; Nebraska Cornhuskers players celebrated a recovered fumble by the Illinois Fighting Illini during the first half at Memorial Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Ron Johnson-USA TODAY Sports /

The Nebraska football team had a chance to blow out the Fighting Illini on Friday night. But the Huskers’ defense did just enough to get back to .500.

On Monday morning, Matt Rhulde did something he hadn’t done since taking over the Nebraska football team. He put his players on blast.

He talked about how he thought his guys looked like they were playing timid. Like they were trying not to lose instead of trying to win. He said, in no uncertain terms that Nebraska football fans would learn quite a bit about the identity of this program in how they responded against Illinois.

So how did they respond? With a 20-7 victory where the Blackshirts showed that perhaps the Michigan game was the outlier. Though that wasn’t clear from the start of the game.

Illinois got the ball first on their 25 yard line and drove 74.5 yards, looking like a hot knife through butter. Then they got to the goal line and got stuffed. Nebraska football’s Blackshirts bowed up. They stopped Illinois on 4th and goal.

And as it turned out, the Huskers set the tone with that stop.

Here’s some fun with one big number. Illinois had 23 yards rushing on that first drive. They finished with 21 yards rushing for the game.

There were three drives in the entire game, where Illinois looked competitive. Otherwise, they were 4-for-15 on 3rd down and 1-for-4 on 4th down. The Huskers defense led the team to a win. And with the team at 3-3 and several games on the schedule that certainly look like a good defense could hand a team a win, a bowl game is still a realistic goal.

Nebraska football Blackshirts dominate

While the Nebraska football defense looked like the strength of the team for the 5th time in 6 games, the offense continues to have problems. And for the first time all season, Heinrich Haarberg didn’t always look like a solution.

For the time this season, Haarberg in fact, looked like a problem. Whether it was the windy conditions, or his first start on the road, or just a rough night, the Kearney star struggled a bit, especially throwing the ball.

Haarberg completed just 12 of 24 passes for 154 yards. He didn’t have a touchdown pass. He also had his first interception of the season. And more concerning there were plenty of open receivers – more guys running free than I’ve seen all season – and he missed them. Time and time and time again he missed open receivers badly. He threw over their heads, he threw behind them, or he barely threw in their direction.

Haarberg’s two biggest passes on the night were woefully underthrown. The first was a 40-yarder to Marcus Washington that allowed the Nebraska football team to get out of its own end zone and eventually kick a field goal.

The throw was not great. But Washington was able to slow up and haul the underthrown ball down, with a defender all over him. The second was 21 yard pass to Ty Hahn that was so badly off kilter Hahn had to stop and run back toward the line of scrimmage to catch it. Hahn was wide, wide, wide open. It should have been a 30 or 40-yard pass if he had been hit in stride.

On the ground, Haarberg was still mostly very, very solid. He led the team in rushing with 82 yards on 18 carries. That included a very nice 25-yard run where he trucked a defensive back on the way to the endzone.

But even there, the Nebraska football quarterback had problems. He fumbled a snap. He didn’t pitch on a couple of option plays where that pitch could have meant big games for the running back.

Of course, when those backs did carry the ball, they were far from great. Anthony Grant, who managed just 56 yards on 20 carries, left the game with an injury. Not long after he came back, he had a big fumble.

It was the kind of fumble that had Nebraska football fans wondering if the Huskers were about to choke a game away again. Emmett Johnson had a fumble, too.

In fact, while the Blackshirts were playing as well as they have all season, the offense was finding ways to not score despite constantly getting the ball on the Illinois side of the field.

But that’s for another day. Tonight, we’re talking about the Nebraska football team’s Blackshirts leading the way, and keep hopes for an actual bowl game alive.